Since reforming in 2007, 80s band The Blow Monkeys haven’t looked back. Duncan Seaman spoke to singer Robert Howard.
Newly returned to his home in southern Spain, Robert Howard is “just recovering” from a batch of shows in England and Wales with his band The Blow Monkeys.
They included a “massive” hall in Bridlington “which was way too big for us but it was nonetheless good fun”.
“It’s good, I enjoy it more than I used to, I think,” the 55-year-old singer – better known as ‘Dr Robert’ – reflects on his appetite for touring. “I look around me and take it in a bit more because you kind of never know when it might be your last these days.”
Later this month he and The Blow Monkeys will be back in Yorkshire for two more dates – at the Diamond Live Lounge in Doncaster and Selby Town Hall.
As well as the activity with his band, Howard has a solo album out – his 12th in a parallel career which has spanned the last two decades. Called Out There, it’s a stripped down, acoustic affair. “It wasn’t done [that way] out of convenience,” he says. “One of the things I wanted to do was explore open tunings on acoustic guitar which I’d never used before so that I’d hopefully avoid falling into well worn patterns that I’ve used before in song writing. It was a challenge to myself to play in a particular way and it seemed to make sense to do it at our house. I’ve got a tape machine here that I fired up and it worked. I hadn’t even plugged it in for 15 years so I thought this is a sign, this is making sense to me, and I’ve got these songs.
“It differentiates what I do from what The Blow Monkeys do as well, especially with the last album, so for a lot of reasons it just felt like the right thing to do.”
Howard and The Blow Monkeys have been going through a purple patch since reforming in 2007, after 17 years apart. “It was me that did it,” he says of the reunion with old bandmates Neville Henry, Mick Anker and Tony Kiley. “I felt like I wanted to get in a band again. I’d been doing a lot of solo things for 15 or 16 years, I did ten albums’ worth of stuff, lots of touring, and I knew that all the guys were at a similar stage with their lives – their kids were no longer kids and probably on the verge of leaving home, so they had more time on their hands, that’s what happened to me as well.
“And I felt that we did have some unfinished business. I felt there was a period in the 80s where the machines took over with us and I wanted to get back in a room and play as just the four of us again and see what would happen if they were all up for it, so that’s what we did. We made our first album, Devil’s Tavern, pretty much live.
“I also said to them we will do these Rewind-type [80s nostalgia festivals] because you play to a lot of people and there’s nothing wrong with that to do the old songs, but we’re going to make new music as well because I can’t do it otherwise, it’s really important to me to do that. That’s why we’ve made four [studio] albums plus a live one in the last five years.”
As bosses of their own record label, he says “it just make sense to get out an play as many shows as you can and to make as many records as you can”. Luckily, he adds: “We do still have enough people interested to make it worthwhile.”
The trappings the band once had when they were on a major label and having regular chart hits with the likes of Digging Your Scene, It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way and Wait might have been fun – “I loved being part of that thing for a while, cars turning up, doing TV shows in far off foreign lands and knowing the back of your mind that you would end up paying for this for the rest of your life” – but Howard says: “That wouldn’t suit us any more, we don’t need that kind of help. We’ve pretty much had to do it ourselves. The record industry has shrunk and it’s so different and so diverse that you just need to find your own place within that.
“We still try and send our records to Radio 2 in the hope that they’ll put it on their playlist but I know that they won’t because it doesn’t sound like Digging Your Scene but that’s the battle that you fight. And the world’s not about that any more for us, which is great.”
In the 80s The Blow Monkeys’ assimilation of Marc Bolan, soul and house influences made them proper pop stars. Howard sounds comfortable with fame. “It’s partly what I wanted when I was young and partly I was pushing myself blindly towards that goal as well. It happened and it was great fun.”
But, he adds: “When it all falls away, which it inevitably does for everybody, then you’re left with your friends and your real motivations. That’s where I think it sorts the men out from the boys. You’ve still really got to want to make music, you’ve still got to love music and have music flying within you to carry on.
“I’m glad I went through it and it set me up in a way that the band’s name got known, but I knew it was frivilous and in some ways stupid. It’s got even worse now because it has become an end in itself, this celebrity culture has reduced the whole thing to everybody just having their 15 minutes’ worth without really having a reason to get there. It’s distorted it all a little bit.
“We came from an era in the 80s when bands from Britain were having proper international hits. We were lucky that we went through that thing in America where we ended up touring a lot and we did that American Bandstand show and stuff like that, it was a thrill, I really enjoyed it at the time, but I was lucky, I had good friends around me.”
In 1987 The Blow Monkeys collaborated with US soul legend Curtis Mayfield on the anti-Margaret Thatcher single Celebrate (The Day After You).
Howard says: “He was a hero because he was that perfect mixture of soul music and agitation and politics – and on top of it all he was a very humble guy. He didn’t have an air of any rock stardom about him at all. Just by observing him I learned an awful lot.”
Howard also played bass in Paul Weller’s band during the making of the albums Wild Wood and Stanley Road. “I remember that Paul was definitely finding his mojo again,” he recalls. “We was on the way up again. After being a bit lost for a while at the end of The Style Council he’d found his focus again, so it was fun to be part of that.
“Musically I enjoyed it because I love Paul’s music, I love his writing. To be part of that – I did a lot of bass playing on things like Changing Man – was fun because I enjoyed not being the frontman and I enjoyed seeing him getting off on it all and beginning to be really successful again.
“Paul’s got a special place in British culture. He’s got a very hardcore, largely male, following of a certain age as well, but they really worship him. They’re Jam fans, basically. It’s quite special to step into that world and see it up close, the passion behind it all and the belief.”
Another artist he enjoyed working with was PP Arnold, who has a home near his in Andalucia. He hopes that Cherry Red will soon reissue their album Five in the Afternoon. “I met her at a party here and, as you do, guitars came out and we had a little sing-song and I thought, ‘This is too good an opportunity, I’ll be back in touch’ and I went away and wrote an album with her in mind for us to do duets,” he says. “A couple of musicians came over to Spain to help us – Marco [Nelson] from the Young Disciples and the drummer from Galliano [Crispin Taylor]. It was great fun.”
The Blow Monkeys plan to release another album next year. “We’re planning to get back in the studio in January/February to do a brand new album,” Howard says. “We’re on a bit of a roll now and we’re enjoying what we’re doing. We can basically do whatever we want. You’ve got to feel like you’re going to excite yourself, you’ve got to dig a little bit deeper, not go to places where we know we’re comfortable, so we’re going to try something new, hopefully.”
The Blow Monkeys play at Diamond Live Lounge in Doncaster on August 20 and at Selby Town Hall on August 28. For details visit www.theblowmonkeys.com